10 Tips for Helping Toddlers Through Separation Anxiety
You pull up to the gym for the first time in 2 months, feeling annoyed because your son dumped his veggie straws all over the backseat and took off his shoes and threw them in the trunk. You're already embarrassed because you're going to walk in late to your cardio class. Now you're that girl. You hustle in there and try to act like you're really put together. Now, you're even more embarrassed because you can't locate your gym card, and trying to find a tiny little card while holding your water bottle, phone, headphones and baby is impossible. You can feel your cheeks are bright red.
Embarrassment turns to horror as you walk in to the childcare center. I mean this place is a kid's dream, alright. Toys everywhere. Disney movie on the TV. Kids running around in merriment. But not for your little rebel. Nope. He's wailing. Screaming. Clutching to your leg and looking up at you with betrayal in his eyes. Snot is already dripping. You wait around for a few minutes trying to console him. Not working. You are now mortified.
You hand him over to the sweet teenager who thought this would be an easy job. Sorry, babe. And rush out in a swirl of headphones and yoga pants to the sounds of your child's soul-crushing cries. You avoid the eyes of the front desk lady, because you've had enough of that stare for one day. You walk into your cardio class late. You're that girl. You get the crappy dumbbells and the broken jump rope and you try not to cry. Thankfully the music is drowning out the sound of your child's sobs.Sound at all familiar? Or am I alone here? Mamas, living with a toddler with separation anxiety can be stressful, embarrassing, and downright tiring. You start to make concessions for places that you shouldn't go or things you shouldn't do, because you're worried about how your babe will react when you hand them off. You dream of a date night, but are too afraid to call for a sitter because you're afraid of how she'll handle your inconsolable child. You can't even go to the bathroom without crying and banging on the door. If we've gotta go to work or to the dreaded DMV, we don't really have the choice of bringing along our little ones and that makes the process even more stressful. No doubt about it, mama. Having a toddler with separation anxiety is straight up tough. If you're with me on this one, you know you'd look for answers in the freaking stars if it would help you get through this little developmental milestone. Well, hopefully these 10 tips will save you investing in a telescope, and give you a little better grasp on what we can all do if we've got a little one with separation blues.
1. Acknowledge ItOnce I finally figured out that my son wasn't going to be an easy drop-off, it started to change the way that I interacted with the people he was being left with. You need to recognize that this isn't an uncommon thing, and in fact it is pretty typical for most toddlers between 18 months and 2 years. Try your best to get over the embarrassment factor, and STOP telling yourself that you're doing something wrong. You are just going to have to do things a little differently when you're dropping off your babe. Once you've got that step down, the rest should be a little easier (ha) to do.
2. Be ConsistentOur kids are so freaking perceptive. They start to recognize when you pull up to certain places (like the dreaded gym mentioned above), or even when you head over to a good friend's place that usually watches him when you need a sitter. They'll begin to cling to you, look to you to play with them, and try their best to keep you around. They know you're going to leave. Having a consistent goodbye ritual will do wonders for you and your anxious little sweetie. Some mamas do a cute handshake, others just have the same saying before they leave. Even if your babe is screaming for you to stay, you can give them a kiss on the cheek, say, "I'll see you soon," and head for the door. The more consistent you are with your goodbye, the more your child will start to rely on this method, and they'll actually be more comfortable with the situation.
3. Follow ThroughThis applies more to our older kids who are still struggling with separation anxiety, but is a helpful reminder to use for even little ones. Make sure you follow up on pick-up. When you give them a squeeze, you can say, "Mama told you she would be back soon," to help build that trust your child needs to feel secure without you being there. For my young son, this is also an opportunity that I use to speak with the caregiver and get an idea of how long he cried after drop off. If he did great, I make sure and praise him for doing so well calming down. If he didn't do so great, we talk about how mama will always come back to get him after her class.
4. Keep it CasualOne of the things that makes our kids act up when we leave is often the attention they receive. It's hard for us as parents to watch our babes cry and reach out for us, and for us to simply walk away. Thinking about it happening to me earlier today actually makes my heart clench. But the truth is, the bigger deal we make of the drop-off and the pick-up, the worse it will be for your babe. Try your best to be quick and light with your drop-off, and don't make a huge scene when you pick up either! A quick hug and follow through is all they'll need. Especially considering up until you showed up, they were probably getting along just fine. No big deal!
5. Stay AwayNot like... forever. But once you've left, just stay away. Another annoying thing about being parents is we want to check in and make sure our kids are doing okay, especially when we know they have a hard time being without us. Trust that if there was a problem, you would know about it. If no one's come to find you/call you, then your little one is doing just fine. This also goes back to making sure you're not internalizing your child's anxiety. Don't feel bad for anyone because your child cried when you dropped them off. You need to get over it. I literally tell myself that every time I drop off my son. Get over it.
6. Comfort is KeyYou don't want to leave your babe high and dry when you're dropping them off, so feel free to make sure they have something that can help them calm down. If you need to make sure he has a snack and his sippy cup (my son's favorite things), that's great! If they've got a favorite blanket or stuffed animal that makes their life a little easier, then make sure and send them with that. It's okay to make sure they have something familiar when they're in a situation they're not used to.
7. Give it TimeYou want to make sure you give your child time to warm up to the new arrangement. If you're getting a new sitter or are starting at a new gym, you should expect your child to have hesitations about the caregiver and the types of kids that will be there. Allow your little one the time they need to get used to it, but make sure you stay consistent with your goodbye and follow-throughs. If you've been sending them with their comfort items, after a few weeks/months (depending on your child), you can start to ween them off and see how they do. Check in with the caregiver to see how they do, and then re-evaluate. It's all about taking the time to make your child feel safe without you around.
8. Same PageA very important tip for pretty much any relationship that involves communication... You need to be on the same page or everything else is going to be a hot mess. So make sure you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to dealing with your babe's behaviors. If your husband sticks around for a lengthy goodbye, reads him a book, and pushes him in the car before he leaves (and of course your son still screams), and you do your quick, "SEE YA" (and of course your son still screams), your child is going to have an even harder time when you leave. Make sure you both have a similar (doesn't have to be identical) method for dropping off and picking up so that your child can depend on the consistency with both of you.
9. FamiliarityIf all else fails, and you're doing your best to make your babe feel safe and secure but nothing's working, a great place to turn to is people you know your child is already comfortable with. A great example is grandparents or aunts and uncles, but it could also be friends that your child is often exposed to and has interacted with before. If you know that leaving him with gammy means no screaming when you leave the house, then by all means call that saint of a woman right on over! *But seriously mom, can you move in?* I know this won't be feasible for every situation, and there are going to be times when you don't necessarily have a choice of who is watching your kids, but this is a great way to get them used to not having mama (or daddy) around all the time.
10. Day by Day
Just like us, our kids are going to have their good days and their bad days and their absolutely horrible days. We need to roll with the punches through their anxieties the same way we roll with everything else as parents. If today you feel like your child won't be able to stand a drop-off (and if you can help it), maybe reschedule what you've got going on. If your usual goodbye method has been failing you this week, try and mix it up and see how it goes. Be willing to go with the flow, see how your child reacts, and make changes where needed.